Xavier Branch, a student at the Fort Campbell Bastogne Teen Center, achieved the prestigious title of Midwest Military Youth of the Year regional winner in the Boys & Girls Club of America's regional competition held in Chicago in June.
The Boys & Girls Club of America's Military Youth of the Year program recognizes exceptional teenagers who actively participate in local community youth programs on U.S. military installations. Branch, representing the U.S. Army Garrison Fort Campbell Child & Youth Services (CYS), made history as the first individual from this region to secure victories at both the Kentucky state level and the Midwest regional competition.
Reflecting on his victory in the regional competition for Military Youth of the Year, Branch experienced a wave of pride and relief.
"I wasn't just proud of myself but proud of the people supporting me. I did not want to feel overconfident, but the people supporting me reassured me of all the hard work I've done. It was my victory, but I wanted to make sure it was their victory too," Branch said.
Branch's mother, Susie Stewart-Branch, was stationed in Fort Campbell earlier in her career, then stationed in Japan before moving back to Fort Campbell with her son. She retired from the Army in 2017 and is now a Fort Campbell DoD civilian. After their return to Fort Campbell, her son discovered the Bastogne Teen Center and became actively involved, finding a sense of familiarity as he had been involved with teen centers before.
"It really helped me settle in with school and being back in Fort Campbell. It felt like a second home, a place where youth and staff members connect with us," Branch explained. "I can interact and learn from older individuals who are not my age."
The diverse programs offered at the Bastogne Teen Center played a pivotal role in Branch's development of practical life skills and healthy habits he incorporates into his daily life.
“Things like giving myself time, planning ahead, and being organized with work has helped me with my whole high school career,” Branch said. “The Bastogne Teen Center also taught me about cooking and learning to cook for myself, instead of relying on others or going out to get something to eat.”
Veronica Mandez, a homework tech for Fort Campbell CYS, explained that Branch fulfills numerous responsibilities at the teen center, offering his volunteer services wherever they are most required.
“He is a very bright student and good in math and other subjects. He works diligently in our homework room, serving as both a tutor and a leader,” Mandez said. "He volunteers for activities outside and inside the center. He helps with anything the staff needs, including just talking to kids.”
At the Bastogne Teen Center, Branch looked for opportunities to excel and eventually became the Keystone Club President. His duties included planning, organizing, and overseeing multiple activities, one of which was Operation Megaphone, a 24-hour lock-in event held at the teen center that helps bring the club members closer together.
“We got to feel like it was finally our place, because this is what this place was made for. It was made for the kids to just be comfortable and be themselves,” Branch said. “It felt like we were a family.”
Among the many activities Branch enjoys at the Bastogne Teen Center, tutoring and mentoring his peers hold particular significance. By setting an example through his involvement in the Military Youth of the Year program, Branch inspires others to follow in his footsteps.
Mandez, expressed her joy in being Branch's mentor and highlighted the valuable lessons she has learned throughout his two-year journey in the competition.
"He's very dedicated and determined, and now that we've come this far, he wants to win,” Mandez stated. “They look up to Branch and express their desire to emulate him as they aspire to become Military Youth of the Year. They seek guidance, asking him, 'How can I achieve that?' To which he replies, 'I'll teach you, young buck.'"
"I want to show kids that they have the potential to be leaders, even if they doubt themselves,” Branch said. “Many possess leadership qualities but lack confidence. I believe they just need the right role model to instill that confidence,"
Branch now has the opportunity to compete in the National Military Youth of the Year competition in August. Branch said he aims to channel his passion as in the previous competitions and acknowledges that feeling nervous is normal.
"It's a blend of fear, nervousness, and joy. I know it’s okay to be nervous, because it’s not just me that’s going to be nervous but the other competitors too.” Branch shared.
The excitement of friends and family surpasses his own anticipation, Branch said. “I always know that whether I win or lose, they always have my back.”
Branch has been awarded $25,000 in scholarship money from the two state competitions and regional competition with a chance to win an additional $20,000 in the national competition.
The winner of the National Military Youth of the Year also is appointed to serve in the esteemed role as Military Youth Spokesperson for the Defense Department, the military services, and the Boys & Girls Clubs.
For more information, application deadlines, and state event dates, individuals can contact their installation youth center or visit https://www.bgca.org/programs/youth-of-the-year/military-youth-of-the-year.